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Consejo Episcopal Latinoamericano (Celam)


The Latin American Episcopal Council, the Consejo Episcopal Latinoamericano (CELAM), was founded in 1955, following the General Conference of Latin American Bishops that met in Rio de Janeiro. It was formally approved by Pope Pius XII on Nov. 2, 1955. Its main objectives were defined as (1) the study of the problems facing the Church in Latin America, (2) coordinating Catholic activities on the continent, (3) the promotion and support of Catholic charitable activity, and (4) the organization of conferences of Latin American bishops whenever these are summoned by the Holy See.

While CELAM is best known for its role in organizing the General Conferences of Latin American Bishops, Medellín (1968), puebla (1979), and santo domingo (1994), milestones in the history of the Latin American Church, it has also had a continuing role in servicing the particular churches of the continent. The council, composed of delegates from each episcopal conference, holds a four-yearly assembly at which it elects a president, two vice-presidents, and a secretary general. The secretary general directs the day-to-day work of CELAM, much of which as of 1994 was carried out by 11 departments: Catechesis, Education, Family, Children and Youth, Liturgy, Missions, Social Action, Consecrated Life, Vocations and Ministries, Ecumenism and Religious Dialogue, and Culture and Media. There are also secretariats for nonbelievers, the military chaplains, migrants, shrines, a radio and television service, and an Institute of Pastoral Theology. Through its departments, CELAM offers courses for bishops and other Church personnel and promotes conferences and publications. It also produces a regular bulletin.

Origins of CELAM. The origins of CELAM and even of episcopal conferences themselves go back to the activities of bishops such as Helder Câmara (Brazil) and Manuel Larraín (Chile), who was president of CELAM from 1963 to 1966. These bishops were determined to end the remoteness of the Church from the bulk of Latin America's population that had resulted from its close relationship with traditional elites. They also sought to bring the Church into the crusade for development that, it was believed, would pull Latin America out of its backwardness through initiatives like the U.S.-sponsored Alliance for Progress. Typical of this approach were proposals at the CELAM meeting in Buenos Aires in 1960 at which Larraín called for studies into the basis of pastoral theology and for sociological research to inform the Church's ministry. At the same meeting, Bishop Alfredo Rubio of Giradot (Colombia) reported the findings of a study that found that most Roman Catholics in rural areas had not been evangelized and called for the Church to support agrarian reform and to organize a Christian rural movement in each country. In 1964 Bishop Leonidas Proaño, of Riobamba, Ecuador, known as the "bishop of the Indians," founded the Latin American Pastoral Institute in Quito, which was to train thousands of Church personnel from all over the continent. In the late 1960s a series of continental meetings were held to discuss reform over the whole area of the Church's life. Particularly significant was the 1966 assembly at Mar del Plata, Argentina, where for the first time the bishops attempted a global vision of the Latin American Church.

The creation of CELAM as an organ of coordination and collegiality for the Church in Latin America had an effect on the Roman Catholic Church worldwide in two ways. First, CELAM and the other Latin American episcopal conferences were prototypes for the structures created after Vatican II to embody the greater degree of autonomy now vested in particular churches. Second, CELAM brought issues of world development on to the agenda of the universal Church. The CELAM bishops caucused at Vatican II and directly influenced the constitution Gaudium et spes, especially the commitment to "those who are poor or in any way afflicted." The social concerns behind CELAM were those expressed in Pope Paul VI's encyclical Populorum progressio and explored further in the apostolic letter, Octogesima adveniens and the apostolic exhortation, Evangelii nuntiandi.

The results of the efforts of the CELAM pioneers and a new generation of theologians, economists, and sociologists in Latin America to reassess the role of the Church on the continent were first made visible on a world scale at the Second General Conference of Latin American Bishops, held in Medellín, Colombia, in 1968. The Medellín Fathers committed the Church to participating in the transformation of Latin America into a more humane society by eliminating structures of injustice, a transformation they compared with the liberation of Israel at the Exodus [Medellín, Introduction, 6].

Change and Downsizing. CELAM has undergone drastic changes since its foundation, reflecting both developments within the Latin American Church and the changing relationships between Latin America and Rome. The optimism of the 1960s was to prove shortlived. The democratic and populist movements in Latin American countries were abruptly checked by a series of military coups, starting in Brazil in 1964, followed by Bolivia in 1971, Uruguay in 1973, andthe bloodiest of allAugusto Pinochet's coup of September 1973 in Chile. In 1975 it was the turn of Peru, followed in 1976 by Ecuador and Argentina. The times were not auspicious for the Sandinista revolution of July 1979 in Nicaragua, especially after the election of Ronald Reagan as U.S. president in 1981.

The early leaders of CELAM were more progressive than the average of Latin American bishops, and their challenge to inherited power structures and attitudes provoked opposition in the Church. An alliance between conservative Latin American prelates and conservative officials of the Roman Curia sought to check what they claimed to be Marxist infiltration into the Church. Their reaction received support in the election in 1978 of the Polish Cardinal Karol Wojtyła as Pope John Paul II. The new pope's experiences in communist Poland had left him fiercely opposed to Marxism and communism and sensitive to the danger that the involvement of Church personnel in community organization would compromise their distinctive religious mission.

Attempts were made to check CELAM. In 1958 a Pontifical Commission for Latin America had been established, a body with no equivalent for any other continent, reflecting the extent to which the future of Catholicism was felt to be closely bound up with Latin America and enabling the Vatican to monitor and influence developments in CELAM. In 1970 the statutes of CELAM were modified to give presidents of episcopal conferences the right to attend the assemblies. This was generally regarded as a move to reinforce conservative tendencies.

In 1972 the Colombian auxiliary Bishop Alfonso López Trujillo was elected secretary general of CELAM, a post he held for an unprecedented seven years. In 1979 he was elected president. As secretary general, López Trujillo embarked, alleging reasons of economy, on a rationalization of CELAM's activities that included the closure of the Pastoral Institute in Quito, the Liturgical Institute in Medellín, and the Catechetics Institute in Manizales. They were combined in 1974 to form the CELAM Theological Institute, operating from the premises of the Liturgical Institute in Medellín. A number of leading intellectuals associated with the theology of liberation claim that they were banned from the new institute. In 1989 the institute was transferred to Bogotá with the exclusion of leading intellectuals associated with the theology of liberation.

Bibliography: aa. vv., CELAM: Elementos para su historia 19551980 (Bogota 1982). e. dussel, The Church in Latin America 14921992 (New York and London 1992). j. eagelson and p. scharper, eds., Puebla and Beyond (New York 1979). g. gutiÉrrez, et al., Santo Domingo and After (London 1993). f. houtart, "CELAM: The forgetting of Origins," in Church and Politics in Latin America, ed. d. keogh (London 1990). catholic institute for international relations, Reflections on Puebla (London 1980). p. lernoux, The Cry of the People (New York 1980). g. maceoin, ed., "Puebla: Moment of Decision for the Latin American Church," Cross Currents 28/1 (1978). l. mendes de almeida, "A Igreja do Brasile Puebla," in instituto nacional de pastoral, ed., Pastoral da Igreja Brasileira nos Anos 70 (Petrópolis 1994). j. b. restrepo, El CELAM: Apuntes para una crónica de sus 25 años (Medellín 1982). w. uranga, Para Interpretar Santo Domingo (Buenos Aires 1992).

[f. mcdonagh]

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